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If the Slipper Fits . . .

A new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Cinderella' will have a hip-hop princess and a rainbow of stars. Will the beloved TV event enchant a new generation?

August 24, 1997|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

On the "Cinderella" set at Sony Studios, a photographer has been waiting all day to shoot publicity stills of Houston, and his continued presence is getting to be very expensive. There have been whispered conferences between producers and assistants to try to resolve the crisis, but for right now, Houston is sequestered in her trailer; she hasn't had a minute to herself all day. Outside the trailer, a gaggle of official Houston caretakers hang. A woman comes scurrying down the lane with a folded-over paper bag she carries with care in two arms. The security guard posted outside the trailer door holds his walkie-talkie and looks hard at her. "It's Nicole, with the sushi," says the woman. "It's Nicole, with the sushi," says the security guard into the walkie-talkie. "Send her in," says a female voice from over a P.A. system, and the trailer door opens. Everyone outside continues to wait.

About 20 minutes later, Houston emerges. She is wearing her glittering fairy godmother gown, and on her feet are fuzzy blue slippers. Everyone moves. The limousine is waiting, but Houston opts for the golf cart. Three assistants get in with her, and she's off, with the limo driving slowly in front of her, for two blocks. Now she is shuttled into the sound stage that contains the wicked stepmother's house, painted with whimsical gold swirls in the manner of painter Gustave Klimt. The photographer, presumably the one who has been waiting all day, shows no impatience. He coos sweetly to Houston, and she manages to give him some fresh smiles, despite her fatigue.

Afterward, Houston sits for a few moments in a nook of the wicked stepmother's house. She speaks very softly and sits very still, as if to reserve her last ounce of energy against the last interloper of the day. Earlier, her little daughter Bobbi Kristina had sat on a director's chair and watched raptly as mom filmed part of the "Impossible" number, which featured Houston gliding around on a wooden pulley so that it looked like she was flying by Cinderella's pumpkin coach. Producers and stars feel free to bring their children to work on the set. "Families are longing for this kind of thing--simple family entertainment that people can watch with their children," says Houston, sounding a theme that many on the show also voice. "And the message is beautiful for children--that everyone has a song to sing."

As the main singer of that message, Houston insists that she is very aware of the difference between "I Will Always Love You" and a classic theater song. "I know the flavor of what a Rodgers and Hammerstein song deserves," she says. "I wouldn't sing it pop or R&B or gospel. It's very simple, very classic. These songs were written 40 years ago and they've lasted for a reason."

Aside from Houston's big new closing number, two more songs were needed to fill out the score. "The Sweetest Sounds," from the 1962 musical "No Strings" (music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers), was added so that both Cinderella and the Prince could sing about their desires. A new part was created for Jason Alexander, who plays Lionel, a put-upon, quipping servant and valet to the royal family. "We wanted him to have a show-stopping number in the Danny Kaye style," says Zadan. Two existing comic numbers were combined for Alexander, requiring additional lyrics by Fred Ebb to stitch the whole thing together.

Robert L. Freedman, who wrote the "Cinderella" teleplay, then suggested the addition of a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song for the wicked stepmother. Although R&H also handles the Hart catalog, they said no, feeling that his lyric would be jarring next to Hammerstein's distinctive style. But then Bernadette Peters was signed for the role, and everyone felt she would handle it just right. Peters sings "Falling in Love with Love" to teach her daughters that they shouldn't marry for love. Money would be more like it.

Before this, there were two TV "Cinderellas." The cognoscenti generally agrees that the 1957 Julie Andrews version is best, more sophisticated and funnier than the sincere 1965 remake starring (and introducing) Lesley Ann Warren. Trouble is, very few people remember the 1957 version, which aired once and exists only on kinescope. By '65, Hammerstein had died and the new book, by Joseph Schrank, no longer had a sense of tongue-in-cheek. It reflects the irony-free sensibility of conservative family values, 1960s style.

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